The best tree for beginners.

The very best tree for a beginner to own, bar none, is one that she or he has researched extensively. I’ve always kept a small zoo of animals and if you look online this snake or that snake is always described as being a ‘beginner’ animal, but the truth is these creatures want to live and if you provide the appropriate environment they will. The same is true of trees. Critical to bonsai is correct effort at the correct time. If you know what those actions are, the time they are to be performed and can provide the correct environment for your tree you would have to be very unlucky indeed to kill it.

With that said, the reason that both trees and snakes are described as ‘beginner friendly’ is because they will tolerate your fuck ups.

Advanced artists can make a triple axel look easy, the cultivation of exotic and endangered Kihansi spray toads a simple task or the transformation of raw yamadori into exquisite bonsai an afternoon of relaxation. Beginners are not so lucky. Where the advanced artist can sculpt clouds with only the finest glaze of paint or form an apex with a simple twist of the foliage, beginners are stuck poking themselves with the tip of the wire, clumsily snapping a branch due to a lack of wire support, pruning and then thinking “Shit, I should have kept that one.” Watching the youthful efforts of nascent bonsai artists is like watching a foal learn how to walk. It is uninspiring, somewhat cute and instills in the veteran a dreadful urge to say “Here, let me do that for you…” Beginners should be wary of such assistance, it offers nothing in the long run.

So what tree do you get if you’re not sure if you’ll fuck up?  Well, I will share my early efforts with more than a trace of shame.

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This was my very first bonsai. It has several things going for it that informed my decision to purchase it. Strong, unrefined growth, a thick trunk and interesting roots. I had gazed longingly for years at the ficus of Min Hsuan Lo, Amy Liang, Jim Smith and Jerry Meislik. I had done my research and knew the tree could live indoors. Then I decided to screw everything up.
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First I chopped the tree nearly to death in cold December. My reasoning was that ‘Hey, it’s indoors, it should be fine!’ Wrong, wrong, wrong.
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Then I decided to root prune it and repot it in January. I had read that cat litter could be used as bonsai soil, so I bought cat litter. Unfortunately for me, it was not the right kind of cat litter – in Europe they use diatomaceous earth for the feline presents, which makes fine, great bonsai soil. Here in the states we use clay that immediately clumps up into a wad, allowing no liquid to run through the tree. This is absolutely terrible for bonsai. Soil arguments may rage about which is the best mixture or component, but every single bonsai artist will say that this mixture has no virtue and no use for bonsai.

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Fortunately for me and the tree, I repotted it into something more habitable and buried the root ball. I did everything wrong with this tree that someone could. Sloppy wiring, poor choices about pruning, repotting out of season, repotting into quite possibly the worst soil mixture known to man and it kept on kicking, pushing growth because it was healthy. More than that, it seemed like it was basically cooperating with me, putting out growth at the right areas and the branching out exactly how I wanted it to. The growth was predictable and reliable and I experienced basically 0 dieback.

And this is what you look for in a beginner tree. The ability to tolerate fuck ups, boneheaded mistakes, and ignorant choices, then, despite it all, survive. More than survive, develop, move forward and grow into something greater. Ficus will do this for you. They will bud where you want them to, regrow lost branches easily, survive bad care and still (STILL!) allow you to realize your vision.

It is with this ficus that I learned the two most important lessons of bonsai:

1) The tree wants to survive, wants to grow and, if you listen closely, it will tell you what it needs.

2) Bonsai is not about domination or control, but is about cooperation with your tree, guiding it into maturity.

I can think of no better species to learn these from. Unlike juniper and pine, these trees communicate readily, letting you know that they need water or fertilizer in turn. They have simple requirements needing to spend their summers outdoors and their winters indoors in all but the most tropical of climates. As you can see, their durability is nearly unmatched.

The tree is still with me today, four years later, much more refined, and remains one of my favorites for these very reasons.

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My photography has, perhaps, also improved.

The Essence of Bonsai

Scale miniatures will always be more accurate at reproduction than bonsai.

For example, Michael Paul Smith’s cars.

I mean, really now. If they can do cars this well…

The articulation you can achieve, the deceptive qualities of paint, the resolution of plastic are all much better than you can achieve with a plant. If you were to ask me how to create the most convincing and accurate miniature tree I would tell you to work in plastic.

So what the hell is the point of bonsai?

Why do we even bother with these plants?

I’ve seen many arguments about how to define bonsai. Beginners will proudly display their ikea bought ficus or roadside juniper cutting and say “Well, yes, but it is a tree in a pot!” and more picky veterans will argue that it is about creating a scale miniature of a tree.

Yet exception, after exception abound!

When have you seen a tree like this?

No, bonsai is not simply miniaturization, that, like most of the rules of bonsai is a means to an end. We must consider the essence of bonsai. We must ask ourself, what is this thing? What is its first principle? Or, like a good molecular biologist, what bit absolutely cannot be removed without breaking it?

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a cutting, pre bonsai, yamadori or a masterpiece that has been passed down from bonsai artist to bonsai artist, they all have one thing in common: they are alive and as soon as they are not they have ceased to be bonsai. The transformation from a piece of driftwood to a bonsai through a phoenix graft or tanuki should be proof positive of this, it is only through the introduction of life, of living tissue that what is essentially fire wood can become a bonsai.

These thoughts were heavily on my mind at the most recent wood stock, an educational program led by Jim Doyle and Walter Pall at Nature’s Way Nursery. A very old Rocky Mountain Juniper that had once appeared healthy was in bad shape. Very little green foliage, mostly pale yellow, not the reassuring copper of a wintering RMJ. I can’t explain the heartache of looking at a tree like this. The tree was easily world class and, by everyone’s estimation it was likely to die.

I didn’t take any pictures. Doing so would seem… I don’t know. Obscene.

Walter would not oversee the operation. Instead he put the tree in the hands of a trusted student who directed a few of us to start removing the ‘duff.’ More than once a comparison to a coding patient was made, likely to die, but you still do CPR. One of the employees, Kyp, commented grimly “It’ll die if you repot it and it will definitely die if you don’t repot it.”

With chopsticks we combed through the roots, clipping away those that had already died and decomposed into grub like tubules of rot. Every so often someone would mumble “Damn I hope this makes it.” Walter would glance over anxiously, then concentrate on other trees.

For me this was the most educational aspect of the entire weekend. It was the transmission of the secret knowledge of bonsai, last ditch efforts to save a dying and beautiful tree. I spend my days watching how bonsai live, but very rarely have I ever learned how bonsai die and become something less than themselves. When it occurs it is over so quickly that I do not have time to understand it. This was a chance to observe the expert treatment of the soon to be lost.

I should be familiar with this though.

The bonsai stock I view as most magnificent, most beautiful and most ‘tree’ are those that have been kept on the edge of death for years, decades, sometimes centuries. Battered by time and the elements, these trees grow despite the adversity they face. It should be no surprise to us when one finally ceases and gives up its battle. We should not view it as a failure of horticulture, but the frame of our painting, the point at which all possibilities are exhausted. Bonsai, like all great art, is concerned with life and death. More than any other though, this art form demonstrates them in its essence. Because that is bonsai, the interplay of life and death, the living vein against bleached white driftwood. All trees will die. Very few will ever be bonsai.